Artificial Intelligence and Democratic Norms

DSA ADS Course - 2021

Artificial Intelligence, Democratic Norms, Human Rights, Civil Liberties, Data Privacy

This initiative examines emerging issues in four crucial arenas relating to the integrity and vibrancy of democratic systems:

• Challenges to free expression and the integrity of the media and information space

• Threats to intellectual inquiry 

• Contestation over the principles that govern technology

• Leverage of state-driven capital for political and often corrosive purposes

The present era of authoritarian resurgence is taking place during a protracted global democratic downturn that has degraded the confidence of democracies. The leading authoritarians are challenging democracy at the level of ideas, principles, and standards, but only one side seems to be seriously competing in the contest. Global interdependence has presented complications distinct from those of the Cold War era, which did not afford authoritarian regimes so many opportunities for action within democracies.

At home, Beijing, Moscow, and others have used twentyfirst-century tools and tactics to reinvigorate censorship and manipulate the media and other independent institutions. Beyond their borders, they utilize educational and cultural initiatives, media outlets, think tanks, private sector initiatives, and other channels of engagement to influence the public sphere for their own purposes, refining their techniques along the way. Such actions increasingly shape intellectual inquiry and the integrity of the media space, as well as affect emerging technologies and the development of norms.

Meanwhile, autocrats have utilized their largely hybrid state-capitalist systems to embed themselves in the commerce and economies of democracies in ways that were hardly conceivable in the past. The new environment requires going beyond the necessary but insufficient tools of legislation, regulation, or other governmental solutions. Democracies possess a critical advantage that authoritarian systems do not—the creativity and solidarity of vibrant civil societies that can help safeguard institutions and reinforce democratic values. Thus, the papers in this series aim to contextualize the nature of sharp power, inventory key authoritarian efforts and domains, and illuminate ideas for non-governmental action that are essential to strengthening democratic resilience


Executive Summary

From industrial-age factory labor inspections to the fight against COVID-19, forms of surveillance and data monitoring have played a critical role in the last two centuries of economic and social progress. Now, as artificial intelligence (AI) and AI-related technologies potentially unlock the value of large-scale data collection, authoritarian regimes stand ready to manipulate the development of global surveillance to serve their own interests. Absent purposeful efforts to strengthen key democratic norms and accountability around emerging technologies, we risk spiraling into new authoritarian forms of surveillance-based governance.

As China and other authoritarian regimes construct digital authoritarian systems at home and propagate these models abroad, they are competing with democracies to shape global standards and infrastructure. How can liberal democracies harness the massive benefits of AI-related technologies without infringing on fundamental rights and risking a long-term shift toward authoritarianism?

• Building and maintaining data silos. Authoritarian regimes can turbocharge AI by training it on two types of data that liberal democracies should not similarly exploit or combine: “broad data” generated at volume on digital devices, and high quality “ground truth data,” such as tax returns and medical records. While conventional wisdom says that data must be integrated rather than isolated, siloing data limits authoritarian affordances and enhances security. Civil society must consider what silos are necessary to prevent misuse of data.

• Affording new models of “digital sovereignty” for use by liberal democracies. Authoritarian states advocate for digital sovereignty as a state-based model of control over the internet. There is a critical need to develop alternatives. Civil society can help think through new models that balance sovereignty with the protection of individual freedoms.

• Support tech–civil society collaborations and develop resilience. Civil society, in cooperation with government and big tech corporations where possible, can aim to correct market failures—like privileging advertising and marketing tools over individual privacy— by giving citizens the means to safeguard democratic integrity against malign information operations, while preserving essential openness of the information environment.

• Resist sharp power in international fora. Norm-setting and technical standardization of AI-related technologies happen at a global scale. Civil society should promote transparent, multistakeholder AI governance and develop AI standards that encourage democratic practices and individual privacy.

Civil society can play a crucial role to help democracies resist authoritarian influence in the surveillance context. Organizations focused on issues including privacy, human rights, free expression, technological standards, and public health can help identify, explain, and collaboratively address the complex challenges that arise from AI-related technologies.

Democracies have adapted and thrived through past episodes of profound technological change. They must again evolve to continue delivering the many benefits of AI-related technologies while minimizing the affordances that could facilitate a shift toward authoritarianism. A robust civil society may be the greatest asset in the struggle to ensure that the current digital revolution results in more resilient liberal democracies.

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